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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Member’s Interdisciplinary Research Selected for Grant

BioEssays journal cover, from Wiley.

Posted on: Sept. 30, 2020

Assistant Professor of Physics Alison Patteson’s research on the concept of “emergence” in living systems was selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to receive an Early-Concept Grant For Exploratory Research (EAGER) award on Sept. 12. The NSF selected Patteson’s proposal to be one of 33 funded from a pool of 800 entries. According to the NSF website, Patteson’s research was selected chiefly for its potential “to address grand challenges in fundamental research or in STEM education.”

“Emergence is a very broad term that can be applied to many complex systems where they have many interacting parts, but yet a collective behavior appears,” says Patteson. “Despite the fact they are very complicated kind of networks, these interactions seem to be going on. The idea of emergence is an active area for the physics department here at Syracuse.”

Patteson’s research includes observing the bacteria Myxococcus xanthus exhibiting emergent behavior. Investigating living systems has led to interdisciplinary collaboration with the biology department. “We collaborate closely with biology professor Roy Welch on this project,” says Patteson. Welch and Patteson began collaborating shortly after she arrived in Central New York two years ago. “We were both interested in collective behavior and bacteria systems. I have physics approaches and he has biology approaches, but I think actually some of the questions we’re trying to answer are the same.” Welch helped review early drafts of the proposal submission and has an array of 3D-printed video microscopes that will allow researchers to observe and document collective behavior like swarming and predation.

Undergraduate and graduate students also have an opportunity to contribute to Patteson’s research. In addition to possibly crowdsourcing some aspects of data collection like having students review video, students are also helping speed the processing of data by writing code. Undergraduate students are aiming to automate observations by developing algorithms that will help recognize emergent behavior.

“Syracuse University is a place that’s really strong in this area. It is not surprising that I found people to work with,” says Patteson. “One of the reasons I was really attracted to Syracuse is because it is very supportive of interdisciplinary research.”